2021 has been a particularly tough year for deaths in professional wrestling. Unfortunately, Beautiful Bobby Eaton joined those ranks last week, passing away at the age of 62. Eaton passed just over a month after the death of his wife, Donna, the daughter of Superstar Bill Dundee. Eaton was an exceptional in-ring talent with a work style more than a decade ahead of its time.
His contemporaries have long regarded him as one of the best-ever performers between the ropes. Though Eaton struggled to project charisma and rarely spoke during interviews, his prime years were spent with Jim Cornette, one of his generation’s best managers/talkers. With Cornette, Eaton was a constant in the famed Midnight Express. The Midnights were a perfect tag team for the era. The workers (Eaton and partners Dennis Condrey and/or Stan Lane) put on fantastic matches, while Cornette absorbed tremendous crowd heat with his motor-mouth and generally unlikeable personality (on-camera, off-camera…well….). However, Eaton’s tenure in one of the 1980s’ most preeminent tag teams was another notch in a career where he became possibly the greatest tag team wrestler in history.
Bobby Eaton began his career in 1976 at the age of 17, in the NWA Mid-American promotion based in Knoxville, Tennessee. After debuting against former World Champion Bearcat Wright, Eaton was very quickly inserted into an angle with the original Hollywood Blondes (Jerry Brown and future Freebird Buddy Roberts). When the Blondes broke up, promoter Nick Gulas understood Eaton’s almost innate ability to integrate into tag team wrestling and put him with Leaping Lanny Poffo. With Poffo, Eaton won his first NWA Mid-America tag belt, the first of many tag titles, defeating veteran Gypsy Joe and Leroy Rochester (who would go to fame in Mid-South as The Junkyard Dog). The Eaton/Poffo team would be short-lived as Poffo would leave the promotion to work with his father’s outlaw ICW promotion. Gulas immediately teamed the super-talented Eaton into another team, The Jet Set, with his son, the not-so-talented George Gulas.
Behind the scenes, Gulas’s decision to push his son angered many in the promotion. While the Jet Set won the Mid-America tag titles three times, the idea was to use the tag team to spring George into stardom. Which was the idea when Eaton turned heel and joined with Yamamoto’s heel stable. However, Eaton saved Gulas from a two-on-one attack from the Blond Bombers (Larry Latham aka Moondog Spot and Wayne Ferris aka The Honkytonk Man). The Jet Set had one more run together before NWA Mid-America closed. While Gulas pushed his son, Jerry Jarrett split off the group, taking the Memphis TV station and the territory’s top star Jerry Lawler. Eventually, Eaton followed and joined Continental Wrestling Association, otherwise known as Memphis.
While in Memphis, Eaton worked a few singles programs before finding his way back into a tag team, this time called the New Wave with Sweet Brown Sugar, who most fans would know better as Koko B. Ware. The high-flying grapplers were placed under manager Jimmy Hart, who was in the middle of a long tenure as Memphis’s top manager, engaged in a long feud with Lawler. Three times, the New Wave won the AWA Southern Tag Titles (Jarrett’s promotion had a close working relationship with Verne Gagne’s Minnesota-based group). The Wave feuded with Stan Lane and Steve Keirn, who became the top babyface team as the Fabulous Ones. Much like the team with Gulas, Eaton and Sugar split, feuded, and reunited before Eaton’s career path would change forever.
Jarrett entered a working relationship with Bill Watts’ Mid-South promotion, negotiating a talent exchange that would send Superstar Bill Dundee (Eaton’s father-in-law) to Tulsa along with a handful of talent. Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson were included, a makeshift team put together by Lawler who eventually filled the void left in Memphis by the exiting Fabulous Ones. Together Morton and Gibson became a hot property in Memphis. It would be under Watts where the Rock n Roll Express became one of the top drawing cards in the country. However, every hero needs a foil, and with his new influx of Tennessee talent, Watts formed the perfect rivals for the RnRs. Eaton was teamed with Dennis Condrey. The latter teamed with Randy Rose and Norvell Austin as an almost proto-Freebird three-man group in Southeastern Championship Wrestling.
The heel stable was known as the Midnight Express. Condrey brought the name with him to Mid-South. What made the new pairing work was the inclusion of 21-year-old Jim Cornette. Cornette broke into the business in 1982 and become the other heel manager in Memphis. But with Jimmy Hart dominating that territory, Cornette’s growth in Memphis was limited, but in Tulsa, Cornette would become a force. The mouth-mouthed, quick-witted punk mastered his character of a rich, spoiled brat. The trio clicked instantly and was slotted into a feud with tag champs Magnum TA and Mr. Wrestling II.
The Midnights achieved infamy by tar-and-feathering Magnum in the ring. When the match took place, II turned on his partner, and the Midnights easily won the titles. The feud served as a perfect springboard for all four men. Watts knew that Magnum was a star in the making, and putting into a feud with II would catapult him to the top of the cards. The Midnights were now firmly entrenched as Mid-South’s top team, setting them up perfectly to begin their storied rivalry with the Rock n Roll Express. The teams did significant business in the territory, which was becoming a hot national promotion in 1984. The rivalry with the Express took on a new dimension when they wrapped the promoter himself into the fight.
Before the segment began, Watts announced that Cornette had purchased some time on the show to celebrate the Midnights’ title win. Cornette, Condrey, and Eaton celebrated with champagne and cake while Jim Ross looked on with disgust. The segment played a little silly at first, and of course, when there’s cake in wrestling, you know someone is going in. The Rock n Rolls slammed Cornette’s face in the cake and the Louisville Lips guffaws all over the studio. However, the segment takes a turn when Cornette threatens to sue Watts over their treatment. The two confront each other, and things weren’t so silly when Cornette puts his hands on Watts, who slaps Cornette as hard as possible.
The feud propelled both teams into the upper echelon of pro wrestling talent while the mid-80s wrestling wars heated up. The Midnights took their infamy to World Class Championship Wrestling in Dallas. They twice won the NWA American Tag Titles. The Midnights were instantly put into a feud with The Fantastics (Tommy Rogers and Bobby Fulton), and an eventual feud with the Von Erichs lay on the horizon. However, the once-hot territory had already started its slow descent to destruction. Cornette realized Dallas wasn’t the place for them. After only six months, the Midnight Express left WCCW and turned up in Jim Crockett Promotions, ready to restart their feud with the Rock n Roll Express. The Midnights defeated Morton and Gibson for the NWA World Tag Titles on the Superstars on the Superstation event live on TBS in February of 1986.
After winding down the feud with the RnRs, the Midnight Express moved to work with the most successful tag team act of the era, The Road Warriors. On paper, the rivalry made complete sense. The Road Warriors started as one of the most feared heel acts in the country. Because of their look as He-Man figures come to life, their immense charisma, and their work style (they murdered everyone), the Road Warriors became the most beloved badasses in pro wrestling.
The Midnight Express and their conniving manager were perfect foils for the LOD. The feud culminated at Starrcade 1986: The Night of the Skywalkers (IP law be damned!), a show named after the match between the two teams. Booker Dusty Rhodes decided it was a good idea to have two of his top acts fighting each other on a scaffold that hung ten feet over the ring. The visual of the two teams on the towering monstrosity look cool, but the match isn’t very good. The Warriors won, and at the end, Paul Ellering chased Cornette to the top of the scaffold, where he was to fall off and be caught by Big Bubba Rogers (Big Bossman). Bubba missed, and Cornette blew out his knees.
In 1987, Condrey exited JCP, leaving Eaton and Cornette. Under Cornette’s direction, the Express added Stan Lane, the former Fabulous One who Eaton fueled years earlier, into the fold. The new Midnight Express was sleeker, quicker, and more dynamic. The addition of Lane gave new life to the team. Thanks to TBS’s expanded coverage and presence, this version of the Express, complete with their Gorgio Moroder knock-off music, becomes the more famous version of the team. Lane and Eaton feuded with the Four Horsemen on their way to winning both the US and World Tag Titles at the same time.
The most memorable Midnight Express feud of the era was against… The Midnight Express. Dennis Condrey resurfaced in the AWA and reformed his team with Randy Rose and were billed as the Original Midnight Express, this time under the stewardship of Paul E. Dangerously. The Originals won the AWA tag belts before leaving the promotion and making an explosive debut on TBS. Dangerously busted Cornette’s head open with the brick cellphone.
Unfortunately, the Midnight feud ended abruptly when Condrey again disappeared from the promotion. The rivalry with Dangerously continued when the Samoan SWAT Team (The Headshrinkers) debuted. The Express eventually turned heel again, feuding with the Dynamic Dudes (Shane Douglas and Johnny Ace) and the team of Brian Pillman and Tom Zenk. In 1990, Cornette and Lane would leave WCW after years of frustrations with executive vice president Jim Herd. Eaton, a man with a family, stayed in WCW and struggled to find relevance.
In 1991, Eaton won the World Television Title, defeating his real-life best friend Arn Anderson, before dropping it to a rookie named Stunning Steve Austin. Eaton floundered in the WCW before joining his former rival Paul E. Dangerously and his Dangerous Alliance. Along with Rick Rude, Austin, Anderson, Larry Zbyszko, and Medusa, the Alliance was a 1990s answer to the Four Horsemen and made life hell for Sting. Eaton and Anderson became a natural pairing and defeated Dustin Rhodes and Ricky Steamboat for the WCW World tag team titles. Though the Dangerous Alliance was over as a main event heel attraction, headlining the best WarGames match of the WCW-era, the changing leadership cut the program off before it really gained steam. Both Eaton and Dangerously were fired by Bill Watts in 1992.
Eaton resurfaced in Cornette’s Smokey Mountain Wrestling, where Lane and Dr. Tom Prichard had formed the Heavenly Bodies. The Bodies were essentially another version of the Midnight Express but with a different name. Eaton naturally joined with Prichard and Lane, winning the SMW Beat The Champ TV Title before returning to WCW in 1993. During his second run in WCW, Eaton was programmed into a short-lived team with Chris Benoit before pairing with the other half of the Fabulous Ones, Steve Keirn. Called “Bad Attitude,” the Eaton/Kieran team made sense on paper but, in 1993, seemed like something from a bygone era.
Eaton’s final major run came when WCW needed a new partner for Lord Steven (now William) Regal. Initially, Regal was paired with Jean-Paul Levesque (currently Regal’s boss in NXT) as aristocratic Europeans who were disgusted with America, particularly the South. But when Levesque left WCW for WWF, Regal was left without a partner. After a series of surprisingly humorous vignettes, Beautiful Bobby was rechristened by Earl Robert of Eaton. The two became known as the Blue Bloods. Though the team feuded with Bunkhouse Buck and Dick Slater and Harlem Heat for the WCW World Tag Titles, the Blue Bloods never won the belts and were used mainly as a comedic team.
After splitting with Regal, Eaton would mainly work on Saturday Night and Worldwide far from the spotlight. In all, Bobby Eaton was a co-holder of twenty-eight tag team championship reigns with various partners who were all complemented by his tremendous in-ring talent and ability. Just listen to anyone who ever stepped in a wrestling ring. They will tell you that “Beautiful” Bobby Eaton was one of the all-time greats.